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Authors: Brenda Minton

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BOOK: The Rancher Takes a Bride
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“Well he's a little too late for that.”

“I don't think so. I think he's here just in time.”

Her throat tightened. She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Don't, Duke. Don't make me cry. Not today. Why are you following me?”

He tugged on her hand and stopped her. “You don't know why I'm following you?”

She shook her head, and she saw that he looked hurt. She didn't want to hurt him.

“I'm following you because this isn't about you. It isn't about Lilly. It's about us. This will change her life, your life, and that means it changes my life. I'm going because a dad should be involved in a conversation that is life changing. You see, Oregon, some dads want to be there for their kids.”

She flattened her palm against his cheek. “I'm sorry, and you're right. I'm glad she has you.”

“You both have me.”

She moved her hand from his cheek and shook her head. “No, Duke. She has you.”

“You can both have me.”

She started walking, but he remained at her side.

“Oregon?”

She didn't slow down. “Don't. This isn't fair. You can rescue Lilly, but you can't rescue me.”

“What if I want to marry you, not rescue you?”

At that she came to a quick stop on the sidewalk. She looked up, frowning just a little. “That isn't a relationship. You want to be there for Lilly, and I wouldn't want it any other way. But I can't let you marry me out of some sense of responsibility.”

“Lady, you are so wrong. But I'm not going to argue right now. I am going to tell you this. The one thing you can't argue with is that we make pretty decent parents. And you can't deny that everything else between us is pretty amazing, too.”

She couldn't deny it, so she changed the subject. “I have to think. I need to tell Lilly about Joe. I also need to tell her the truth about my health.”

“Let's wait until the morning. We can have a night to sleep on it and pray on it.”

“Okay, I can do that. We'll tell Joe that we'll all sit down together tomorrow and tell her.”

Somehow Oregon found herself on the deck of Duke's No Bar and Grill. Across the street she had a father and a sister. Down the block at the park her daughter was playing with friends, not knowing that her life was about to take a drastic turn. Not for the worse, though. She refused to believe this would be for the worse.

Hadn't she wanted Lilly to have family? A safety net. And now she had one. The strongest part of that net was sitting across from Oregon. And he thought they should get married.

She sighed.

“You okay?” Duke asked.

“Yes, I'm good. Shocked, but good.”

“Really? Because I don't think you should be okay. I think you should be angry, hurt and I don't know what else.”

She leaned back in the chair. “What good would all that do? My mom has managed to leave a trail of destruction behind her. And she doesn't think so. She has always convinced herself that she's doing the right thing, the fun thing or the adventurous thing. All of these years I've asked her to tell me who my dad is, and she's acted like it was impossible to tell, and yet here he was the whole time.”

“What did you tell Lilly about her father?”

She brushed a hand across her face. “I told her she wasn't a mistake. She is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I told her I would find her father for her. And I did. Maybe I took too long, or didn't tell you soon enough, but I brought her here.”

“Would you have brought her if...”

She knew he didn't want to say the word. She said it for him. “If it hadn't been for the cancer? Yes, I would have.”

“Thank you. And for the record, you can reject me all you want, but I'm here for you. Even when you say you don't need me.”

The words filled an empty space in her heart. It would have been easy to step into his embrace, to accept the comfort he obviously wanted to give. But she couldn't.

It wasn't fair to expect him to be that person. Yes, they had a common bond, their daughter. But they'd only had one night years ago. That didn't make her his problem.

A selfish part of her was thankful that he cared, though. Another part of her, a big part, wanted to be his problem to care about.

“We should go back to the shop. It wasn't right to walk away. I just needed a few minutes to think.”

“And now?”

“I think we all sit down with Lilly. Tomorrow. Is that okay?” she asked, knowing it was not just her decision to make.

“I think it's okay.”

As they walked back to her shop, she thought about how great it would feel to have a right to the man at her side. If they were married, if she accepted his proposal, they would have each other. He would be there for Lilly, and for her.

But then she remembered what he'd said days ago. That he'd like to have a half-dozen kids if they were all like Lilly.

Duke could give her everything. But she could never give him those children. It didn't seem like a fair trade.

Chapter Thirteen

O
regon woke up late the next morning. When she got to the kitchen to make coffee, she found a pot already brewing. Not only was the coffee already being made, there were muffins on the counter, too. She walked to the window and looked out. Duke was heading toward the house from the barn, his white cowboy hat pulled low to block the morning sun. Lilly walked next to him. He said something, pushing his hat back a bit as he leaned to Lilly's level. She laughed. They stopped to look out at the field. They were probably discussing her horse and the walking cast she hoped to get the next afternoon.

Footsteps behind her meant she wasn't alone.

She turned, smiling at Sissy. She had stayed the night with them because Joe didn't have an extra bed in his small apartment. Sissy had slept in Lilly's bed, and Lilly had stayed with Duke. Oregon and her sister had stayed up late into the night sharing stories of very different childhoods.

Sissy had lived a privileged life with parents who adored her. Joe had sometimes struggled with his alcoholism but had worked hard at staying sober. He'd been sober for fifteen years when Sissy's mom passed away, and he'd started to drink again. He'd hid it from everyone, still functioning and managing the business.

Oregon had talked about her own mother, a woman who flitted from relationship to relationship, reinventing herself each time.

“They seem close.” Sissy nodded, indicating Duke and Lilly.

“Yes, they're getting closer every day,” Oregon agreed as she watched Lilly and Duke. “I wasn't sure what would happen when I told her. Or him, for that matter.”

Silence fell between them. Sissy eventually rested a hand on Oregon's arm.

“I hope you'll give our dad a chance,” she said. “He's a good man. A little misguided at times, but he cares.”

Oregon was sure Joe cared. “I think I'm more angry with my mother than with him. She didn't have to keep me from him.”

“No, she didn't. He loved you. He has pictures from when you were little. I caught him looking at them once. He wouldn't tell me who you were, but he said something about how we were probably a lot alike.”

“I want us to get to know each other. Lilly should have an aunt. And a grandfather.” Isn't that what she'd prayed for? That her daughter would have family?

Duke and Lilly came through the door, laughing and joking. His gaze met Oregon's and she felt that look to the tips of her toes. It got a little harder to breathe with him in the same room. His presence made it hard to think, to remember why being together wasn't a good idea.

Sometimes she thought it might be. But what if they tried and couldn't make it work? She didn't want to do that to Lilly. She didn't want to do that to herself. It was one of the reasons she hadn't dated since giving birth to Lilly. Because she didn't want her daughter to have to deal with different men coming in and out of her life.

“I started coffee and brought muffins,” he said, reaching to ruffle their daughter's hair when she said something about him not baking the muffins, Ned did.

“Thank you.” Oregon filled three cups with coffee. “I'm not really hungry.”

“Eat,” he ordered as he took his cup of coffee. He carried it to the table, along with two muffins in his left hand. He dropped one muffin on the table and tossed the other to Lilly, who had taken a seat.

Oregon grabbed a muffin and coffee. She motioned for Sissy to take the extra chair at the table. She wasn't in the mood to sit. Duke motioned for her to sit down, though. She shook her head.

“I really can't.” She leaned against the counter.

“Why are you so nervous?” Lilly asked, after taking a bite of muffin. “And why is Joe coming out here? I thought we were going to close the store early today and go shopping.”

“We have to talk.” Oregon sipped her coffee, ignoring the continued looks her daughter gave her. “It's nothing.”

“Let's eat so we can show Sissy that gelding of yours.” Duke mentioned the horse, distracting Lilly. Oregon whispered a silent thank-you when he looked her way.

Lilly scarfed down the muffin in record time and grabbed her crutches. “Let's go.”

“Give everyone a chance to finish their coffee,” Oregon ordered.

Lilly groaned, but sat back down to wait impatiently for the adults who had the nerve to sip their coffee and talk. Every now and then Lilly groaned and Oregon would shoot her a warning look.

Duke drained the last of his coffee and stood, signaling an end to Lilly's torture.

Walking out to the barn together was a welcome distraction. Oregon walked behind Duke and Lilly, listening to the two of them talk and laugh about something that she couldn't hear. While she and Sissy waited at the fence, Duke and Lilly walked into the barn for a bucket of grain and a lead rope.

Duke called the horse up to the corral, shaking the bucket of grain. The gelding trotted up, slipping through the open gate that Duke closed behind him. The horse immediately shoved his nose into the bucket of grain, jerking his head up when the lead rope snapped onto his halter. Lilly waited by the corral fence for Duke to lead the horse over to where she stood.

Oregon and Sissy stood outside the corral. Shoulder to shoulder, Oregon realized that she and the woman who was her sister were nearly the same height, and their hair was the same color. Standing there next to each other, it felt strangely right. She had a sister.

Growing up she'd had a few stepsisters and stepbrothers, but this sister was hers by blood. This sister couldn't be taken away.

“I'm glad we found each other,” Oregon admitted, smiling at the woman standing next to her. “As complicated and strange as this has been, I'm glad.”

“Me, too.”

Joe pulled up in the old clunker car he'd been driving for a month or so. He got out, smiling when he saw the two of them together. As he walked up, Oregon saw it. She saw parts of herself in this man. She saw her chin, her eyes and her smile. She hadn't noticed that the twinkle in her daughter's eyes matched his.

“Good morning, girls.” He kissed Sissy's cheek. He didn't move toward Oregon. He hesitated, as if waiting to see what their relationship would be.

She solved his dilemma by hugging him tight. “We are going to get through this, Joe.”

“I'm glad, kiddo. I'm real glad to hear that.” He turned his attention to the father and daughter in the corral. “Nice horse. She deserves that.”

“She will earn that,” Oregon insisted.

Joe nodded, chuckling just a little. “Of course.”

“Hey, Joe!” Lilly finished feeding her horse and took the bucket away. The gelding nudged at shoulder, but Duke led the animal back out of the corral. “Mom told me you were going to be out today. How do you like my horse?”

“He's a nice-looking animal,” Joe answered as Lilly came through the gate he'd opened for her.

“Thanks. I guess you're here to pick up Sissy?”

“I am, but we're not leaving yet.” Joe gave her room to maneuver with the crutches. “I bet you're ready to ditch that cast.”

She grimaced. “More than ready. I want to ride Chief, go swimming and scratch my foot!”

Oregon watched the two of them. Nothing had changed. They were still Lilly and Joe, two unlikely friends. She sighed, and when Duke reached for her hand, she laced her fingers through his.

“Let's go inside,” Duke suggested to the group.

Lilly's eyes narrowed as she looked at him but didn't say anything. Instead she walked through the front door that Joe had opened for her. Sissy followed, looking as hesitant as Oregon felt.

When Oregon walked into the room, Joe and Sissy were on the sofa. Lilly sat alone, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth. Oregon scooted her daughter over and sat next to her in the overstuffed chair she had plopped down in.

Duke grabbed a chair from the kitchen table and carried it back into the room. All the while they sat in silence. Oregon knew this wasn't the worst news she could give her daughter. It wasn't even bad news. It just felt huge, especially considering that within the past month Lilly had been in an accident, learned that Duke was her dad and now this.

Mothers were meant to protect children. Oregon had always kept Lilly safe. She'd tried to be the mom that her own mother had never managed to be. She'd held Lilly tight when Eugenia had recommended giving her up for adoption. Oregon had insisted she could raise her, and they'd be just fine. And they had been just fine. It hadn't been easy, but they'd survived. They would continue to survive.

“Okay, everyone stop staring and tell me what's wrong.” Lilly looked at them, swallowing loudly as her worried expression grew.

“Lilly, I'm not sure how to tell you...”

“Mom, just say it. I'm twelve and I think I can handle this.”

“Okay. Lilly, just like you, I had a father. I didn't remember him, but I do remember that he loved me. And I always wanted to know him, to know who he was.”

Lilly's gaze flew to Joe. “Are you my mom's dad?”

So much for Oregon's carefully planned speech about forgiving and accepting. She looked to Joe. Her dad.

He focused on Lilly. “I am, sweet pea. I came here because I wanted to make sure you were okay. That your mom was okay.”

“You're my grandfather?” Lilly asked, coming out of the daze she'd been in. She shook her head a little.

“I'm your grandfather. Lilly, it's a long story, but my name is Joe Andrews. I have a manufacturing plant in Dallas. Sissy is my daughter from my second marriage. Your mother is my daughter from my first marriage. And you are definitely my granddaughter.”

Lilly sat for a moment. “Wow, that's just crazy.”

Joe chuckled. “Yes, it is.”

“Why didn't my mom know you?” Lilly asked, full steam ahead as usual.

“Lilly,” Oregon cautioned. “There are some things you don't need answers for, not right now.”

“I'm twelve, not five.”

Oregon looked to Joe and he nodded.

“I didn't know Joe because he had a problem with alcohol and my mother left him.”

Lilly shook her head. “She should have told you.”

Oregon agreed. “Yes, she should have. But she didn't. But Joe found us anyway, and I'm glad he did.” She looked at the man who was her father and smiled. She was very glad he'd found her.

“So you'll stay here, though. Right?” Lilly asked.

“I'm going to have to go back to Dallas. I've left my business in the care of good managers and Sissy, but I can't leave it much longer. But I really want you all to visit. I'd actually love it if you could live there where we could get to know each other better. I know that's unfair of me, but you can't blame a man for trying.”

“Joe, you have to understand, it's important that we stay here.” Oregon took a deep breath, fortifying her resolve. She looked to Duke for encouragement. She'd prayed about this moment, about what to say and how.

“Of course you should stay here,” Joe responded. “Dallas isn't that far away. I'll come visit every chance I get.”

They talked a little while about their lives and Joe's home, about Sissy. Then the conversation died out.

“Oregon?” Duke prodded, his smile lending her strength.

She took a deep breath and nodded. She could do this. She had to do this today. She locked gazes with her daughter. She needed to do this while Lilly had family around her, so she would see that they had people who wouldn't leave them.

“Lilly, we have to talk about more than Joe. We have to talk about tomorrow.”

It was a conversation no mother wanted to have with her child. Especially not her twelve-year-old daughter. She took a deep breath, felt the peace of knowing God was with her and that Duke would be there, too.

“Mom?” Lilly's eyes were wide and she reached for Oregon's hand.

“Give me a second.”

With her family around her, Oregon finally told her daughter about the cancer. She explained that she'd been cancer-free and that the tests the next day were precautions. Everything would be fine, she promised, knowing that no one had guarantees.

“Of course you'll be okay, Mom,” Lilly said with conviction. “And you should have told me a long time ago. I'm not a kid. I could have handled it.”

“You are a kid. You're my kid. But you're right. I should have told you. This probably doesn't make sense, but I wanted to protect you.” She wanted to make sure her daughter always felt safe and secure.

Lilly hugged her tight, as if she was the one who had to be strong. And that was the last thing Oregon wanted from her daughter. Growing up she'd been the strong one too many times for her mother. Eugenia had never seemed to worry, so Oregon had worried for them both. She had spent too much time worrying about where they would go next and what they would do when they got there.

She wanted more for Lilly than that.

* * *

Duke had watched his daughter handle everything that had been thrown at her. He'd expected to be the guy picking up pieces. Instead, Lilly met everything head-on with maturity and faith that made him feel weak by comparison.

After lunch she'd insisted on taking Joe and Sissy outside to see everything. He guessed she might also be giving him time alone with her mom.

As he stood next to Oregon at the kitchen sink, he tried to brush aside Joe's offer to her, but he couldn't. Even though she had firmly rejected the idea of moving to Dallas, he thought about how that would change his life if she left.

True, he hadn't had a daughter very long. But she was his, and he didn't want to lose her. As he rinsed a plate, Oregon bumped her arm against his.

“I'm not going to take her away from you,” she whispered close to his shoulder.

“I'd appreciate that.”

“Then stop looking so worried.” She kissed his shoulder. It unsettled him, that simple kiss.

BOOK: The Rancher Takes a Bride
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